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May 13, 2021

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Shanghai’s booming art scene and the value of international cultural exchanges

EDITOR’S note:

This is an adapted excerpt from Cheng Li’s new book, “Middle Class Shanghai: Reshaping U.S.-China Engagement” (Brookings Institution Press, May 2021). Li is director of the John L. Thornton China Center and a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy program at Brookings Institution. Part of this photo essay first appeared on the Brookings Institution website. All photos were taken by the author in September and December 2019.


Among the many forces shaping China’s domestic transformation and its role on the world stage, none may prove more significant than the rapid emergence and explosive growth of the Chinese middle class. At the center of this story in China is the city of Shanghai.

Any comprehensive study of the middle class in Shanghai must include an exploration of the cultural discourse and dynamic activity of its artistic community. Shanghai historically has been a cradle for Chinese contemporary art, and the city’s art scene has enjoyed long-standing exposure to Western culture.

This does not just stem from the city’s colonial past or the influence of the throngs of foreign visitors to the city; it also relates to the large proportion of students from Shanghai who have studied Western and foreign art abroad.

Artists from Shanghai were among the first group of Chinese students to study abroad in the 1980s, and most of them later returned to live and work in Shanghai.

Since 1996, artists in China and overseas have jointly organized the Shanghai Biennale, a biannual art exhibition, in an effort to establish more professional ties, both with the international art world and with audiences in China. The Biennale normalizes experimental art and creates a space for exhibiting controversial art forms — including works that challenge social norms.

The establishment of the Shanghai Biennale has heralded a southward shift, and dynamism in modern Chinese art is increasingly moving from Beijing to Shanghai and other southeastern coastal areas.

Shanghai has made a concerted effort to promote contemporary art — especially avant-garde work — to prominence in the public arena. According to one recent study, over the past decade, Shanghai has hosted an average of 300 international exhibitions every year, a significant portion of which are focused on art and culture.

Chinese contemporary art, or more precisely Chinese avant-garde art, was not born in Shanghai, but manifested in Beijing in 1979, when a small group of artists organized an unofficial exhibition on the park railings directly opposite the National Art Museum of China. Although this avant-garde exhibition lasted only two days before being shut down by government authorities, the Chinese avant-garde movement continued to grow in the capital before eventually settling in the 798 Art District in northeast Beijing during the early 2000s.

Around the same time, a group of mainly Chinese and also foreign artists and curators in Shanghai took over the abandoned warehouses of a former textile mill, as well as factories on Moganshan Road, now known as M50 Creative Park, and other nearby areas. As of 2021, there are still over 100 studios and exhibitions by the community of avant-garde artists in this area. In addition, an enormous compound of buildings has been under construction just outside M50, which will serve as a new art center in the district.

In recent years, Shanghai has experienced an exponentially rapid expansion of art galleries. In 2001, a local English-language magazine identified just 47 galleries in the city that were reasonably well established. However, by 2019, according to a ranking by the World Cities Culture Forum, Shanghai was ranked third in the world in terms of total number of art galleries (770), behind only New York (1,475) and Paris (1,142), and ahead of Tokyo (618), London (478), Rome (355), Brussels (313) and Los Angeles (279).

The Shanghai Municipal Government has recognized the need to establish excellent museums as the city’s landmarks, recently designating the 8.4-mile (13.4-kilometer) stretch of land on the newly developed West Bund of the Huangpu River as the art district. The 4-mile-long Longteng Avenue along the West Bund has already become home to dozens of museums and art galleries. When completed, the West Bund will be “Asia’s largest art corridor.”

The West Bund is now home to large-scale museums such as the West Bund Art Center, the Long Museum West Bund, the Shanghai Center of Photography (SCoP). Also located in the area are relatively small art galleries, such as the Don Gallery and a branch of the ShanghART Gallery, as well as the nearby Power Station of Art (PSA). These museums, art centers and galleries have frequently featured contemporary art from artists living overseas, as well as in Shanghai and other parts of China.

Many of these newly built museums and art facilities in the West Bund were privately funded. For instance, the Long Museum West Bund, which was China’s largest private museum at the time of its opening, was founded by the Shanghai-born entrepreneur couple Liu Yiqian and Wang Wei in 2014.

The Le Freeport, a bonded warehouse built for the storage of artwork, has also found a home in the West Bund. Lorenz Helbling, the Swiss founder of ShanghART and one of the most respected avant-garde galleries in Shanghai, recently called the West Bund “Shanghai’s — if not China’s — most exciting up-and-coming art district.”

In addition to displaying and selling art pieces, some galleries also offer weekly or monthly public lectures about contemporary art. Most of the attendees are college students and young members of the middle class.

In 2017, there were 6.17 million total visitors to art galleries and museums in Shanghai, including 3.96 million visitors to state-owned museums and 2.21 million visitors to private galleries. Visiting a museum for middle class residents in Shanghai is not only a source of entertainment but also “a kind of education, a kind of lifestyle.”

The art gallery boom in Shanghai reflects the evolving cultural dynamics and aesthetic interests and preferences of the growing middle class in the city. While external sources may continue to exert pressure and challenges, it is a fact that the middle class residents of this cosmopolitan city have become increasingly dissatisfied with homogenized products and services, and are now demanding subcultural identity, individuality and diversity.


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